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One from the "I was wondering about that" Department: Lego System, the company that makes Lego, is struggling to find its way.

This really struck me when a friend and I happened across a temporary Lego playground/exhibit in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park (near the Academy of Sciences) this past summer. It was neat, don't get me wrong. They had little Matchbox-sized (pre-assembled) Lego cars and a ramp course to run them on, countless electronic Lego knickknacks/toys I can't for the life of me remember (in truth, I'm surprised I remember those car things...), and even some inflated, enclosed LegoLand-type dealie you had to wait on a line to get into, coming out of the back of the trailer of an 18-wheeler. The truck, actually, was really cool — a nifty looking, souped up cab, with little Lego spaceman sculptures welded on, if I remember well.

There were lots of kids there, having a fun time, from every indication. But the whole thing mostly left me wondering what Lego is all about today. The Lego sets I remember so fondly were nowhere to be found; those newfangled electronic gizmos had taken over the company. Are the days when kids built stuff out of plain, solid materials, with their own hands, really gone? Does even Lego need to be about nifty electronics and Star Wars?

Well, I learned a bit about the company from this article in today's New York Times. Lego Systems apparently lost $105 million in 2000, by far its largest loss ever and only the second yearly loss in the almost-70-year-old, family-owned company's history. The toy maker did about $1.2 billion in sales in both 1999 and 2000, however. It's huge.

A company that size, of course, has to move with the market to preserve its business. Much as I (and most anyone else who fondly recalls their own experiences with Lego, I'm sure) wish nothing would ever impugn the integrity of those little plastic bricks — and especially the round translucent yellow ones, the rarest and coolest of them all, in my day — Lego Systems itself can't afford to stay in the past. Oh well.

Interestingly, the Times' piece quotes Jason Rowoldt, the creator of, near the end ("Everyone from the '70s and '80s, we hate this. But I guess they have to focus on what makes a dollar"). The films featured on Brickfilms, of course, employ basic, classic Lego pieces as their stars. So for once, in its own way, perhaps the web is proving better for preserving the past — and actually keeping it alive, albeit in a radically new way — than those old foguies in the brick-and-mortar world.

December 25, 2001 11:54 PM

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Copyright ©2001-2003 Matt Pfeffer


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